DOWN THE HULAHULA : The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Is Wilderness Without Qualification. The Question Is, Should It Stay That Way?

John Balzar, The Times' Northwest Bureau chief, has yet to reach his accommodation with mosquitoes

WE BEGIN WITH FAREWELL.

Joe Firman's blue Cessna 207--chipped, dented, faded and otherwise worn hard--growls and lurches down a gravel bar, then lifts and floats upward, heading south. We watch and listen, standing amid piles of gear, in a frosty wind blowing down off the polar ice pack.

Steadily, the Cessna rises and the RRRAHHH of its propeller fades to rrrahhh . Then Joe and the bush plane draw smaller and disappear over the blade-edge of the mountain divide. One far-off sputter of internal combustion reaches us, and then no sound at all. Nothing but the swirl of empty wind.

In the conspicuous silence, the six of us--five travelers and one guide--stand spellbound. We are 150 miles north of the Arctic Circle, as close to the middle of nowhere as humans can get in North America, feeling as small as any of us will ever feel.

Firman has set us down in the far northeast corner of Alaska--in the vast Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, on the banks of the very un-tropical Hulahula River. Ragged and majestic, the ice-capped limestone peaks and bare shale buttresses of the Brooks Range rise around us. For the next 10 days we will raft 65 miles, north and downriver, utterly removed from what is regarded as civilization.

"Opening day," beams backcountry guide Macgill Adams, breathing in reverently, reaching out with open hands to embrace the wild Arctic. This is the beginning of his 14th summer in these parts. Macgill is the real McCoy, master of the genre. He is naturalist, storyteller, adventurer and chef, and he carries 100-pound loads. He has a significant reputation, which in Alaska is not easy to earn or maintain. He has raced in the Iditarod, been a Brooks Range guide as long as almost anyone. His wilderness philosophy is elegant, fierce and fun-loving: We can control nothing, but we will handle everything. The Arctic demands only that we have the right attitude, threading our way between arrogance and fear.

"If you don't, the Arctic is unforgiving," Macgill warns us.

His tent mate and trip assistant, Anchorage dental technician DeeDee VanVliet, has heard all this before. So has another Anchorage resident, Allen E. Smith, Alaska regional director of the Wilderness Society. And even the occasional outdoorsmen among us, myself and photographer Al Seib, are familiar with this concept of letting loose without letting go. But along with Baltimore businessman and greenhorn Christopher Swift, we all listen carefully, maintaining our best game faces.

Above us, the cloud ceiling has dropped, and a rain squall is setting in. The river, saturated with powdery silt from its headwater glaciers, flows turbid as a milkshake, rising with the downfall and the melt. We will later lose a magnum of champagne, set out to be chilled in the river's swirling depths. Up goes a camp shelter, and we retreat under it. The sensation is curious. We are crammed together shoulder-to-shoulder, while all around us is the vastness of treeless mountains. It is the first but by no means last instance in which our sense of scale will go gooney on us in the Arctic.

Time is the next casualty. An afternoon of river watching and landscape awe drifts into evening and then into night, although these distinctions are artificial now. The sun neither rises nor sets above the Arctic Circle, liberating us from the most relentless rhythm of our lives.

Finally, our tents go up in a cluster. I nest deep in my sleeping bag. The wind and rain drum on the nylon above me, and on my urbanized psyche. I fish out my flagon of Scotch. It's unwise to fill one's tent with the irresistible vapors of fermented sugar while sleeping in grizzly bear country. But I take a fast, gulp anyway. A calculated risk, that's the secret.

As the tent shudders, I have a pang of remorse: We are deep into a preserve people rarely penetrate, where we do not dominate. We are here with our whiskey and fat rubber boats. We are trespassing.

THE 19-MILLION-ACRE Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is slightly larger than Ireland. At latitude 69 degrees north, 325 miles north-northeast of Fairbanks, it contains no roads, boasts no gateways, offers no shelter, encourages no contact. Its contours are sharp out of the castings. It is one of the wildest and most remote places in the world. You can call it natural and leave off the qualifiers.

This is a land of permafrost, rock, tundra and horizon. Too far north for trees, it is never far from ice. During each short growing season, from mid-June to mid-August, life is as vital as it is vulnerable.

Inupiat Eskimos of the Beaufort Sea coastline north of the Brooks Range, as well as Gwich'in Athabaskan Indians from south of the mountains, venture here to hunt caribou, sheep and bear. From milder wintering grounds in Canada and east-central Alaska, caribou annually migrate here in dizzying numbers to feed on the rich sedges and lousewarts and sustain thriving populations of grizzly bears and wolves. In the air, colonies of itinerant birds chatter in the songs of their other, distant ranges in Africa, South America, Australia and the Lower 48. There are golden eagles, loons, merlins, jaegers, plovers and dozens more. On the ground there are weasels, foxes, ground squirrels,Dall sheep, musk oxen and moose; in the rivers there are bright grayling and char. Mosquitoes sometimes boil forth in thick, black clouds that cast shadows under the 24-hour summer sun.

Throughout much of this century and before, wild places like this have brought forth in some humans an overpowering determination to gain dominion. These people have settled and cleared, fenced and mined, dammed and drilled. Now they have followed the spoor of petroleum, money and jobs here.

On the coastal plain of the refuge, in a great tundra prairie that separates the Brooks Range from the Arctic Ocean ice pack, Cretaceous mudstone weeps liquid petroleum, and Tertiary sandstone, crumbled under a hammer, smells like a crankcase. The region is said to be America's most promising prospect for another on-shore oil boom. Conveniently, it lies less than an hour by air east of the Trans-Alaska pipeline.

But the world's inventory of wild places is being exhausted as fast as its supply of petroleum, and what wilderness remains attracts fierce defenders. A determined army of environmentalists has taken up the refuge's cause, and its remoteness and superlatives have captured the imaginations of many less-committed Americans. Someday, an advanced civilization may hammer a plaque into the permafrost: Here 20th-Century preservationists and developers fought one of the great eco-battles of the age.

The first sorties were mild. In 1960, the Interior Department designated 8 million acres here as wildlife range. In 1971, Congress authorized oil production at the adjacent Prudhoe Bay and began to consider the final fate of all of Alaska's federal holdings. Ten years later, the federal Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act expanded the refuge to 19 million acres, eight of which were designated as protected wilderness.

But there was a but in the law. All of the northern part of the refuge was preserved except for a puzzle-piece of the coastal plain. Section 1002 of the act, a result of vigorous lobbying by oil-development interests, created a 1.5-million-acre "study area" there, and left open the possibility of future drilling.

The brawl started the next day. To drill or to preserve? For 13 years, neither those with a stake in oil development nor those pushing for absolute protection have been able to muster the votes in Congress or the public support to prevail in the "10-oh-2 area." One side gains an advantage, the winds of politics blow and the question opens again. It has become a Sisyphean debate.

Twice before I have traveled to this refuge to listen to the angry arguments. This trip is different. I've come to see and feel, not just listen.

DAY TWO ON THE HULAHULA and the weather has not improved. Swaddled in rain gear, we snap and rattle in the wind. The steam rises and is torn off our mugs of coffee. We stamp our feet and hunch our necks down into our shoulders. We'd be feeling sorry for ourselves, except that mosquitoes happen to hate a cold, wet wind even more than we do.

"Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore," says Chris. In Baltimore, he had daydreamed over atlases and pondered wide-open places. As a child, he wanted to grow up and be an explorer. He has yearned to see the Brooks Range for 30 years. Last night was his first camp-out since 1981.

"Really," he says, "when the plane came over that pass yesterday, it was just like going through a door. You're in a different place."

Before the trip is over, this graying, 46-year-old businessman will be dancing on the tundra in the sunshine like a child, wearing only a grin, howling with exuberant abandon: "I'm naked!"

For now, we shiver in our three-piece Brooks Range suits--sweater, coat, rain shell.

Democracy is spreading throughout the world, so today's agenda goes to a vote. With a nod to Macgill's rule and in synch with Arctic time--if the sun isn't moving, why should we?--the vote is in favor of "no hurry." And that, apparently, is just the sort of schedule Macgill has in mind: Rise when rested, eat when hungry, move when restless, sleep when tired.

Today calls for a hike, and a hope for better weather tomorrow. People tossed into the 38-degree water of the Hulahula have only a minute or so before losing the strength to control their bodies. We, in the 39-degree air, can walk ourselves warm. And we do.

This trip begins for us as far up the river as a bush plane can land in the deep, wide U-shaped glacier valley. The river bottom is all gravel, and in places it is 10 times wider than the river, evidence of the recently receded glacier. Tundra banks stretch out to the steepening bluffs of sharp, broken scree. It is mid-June, but spring has barely made an inroad here. The colors are shadow grays and yellow-browns, with only occasional muted greens. Crusty remnants of ice fields and snowbanks endure randomly. The sky is a shade of slate.

Going south, we head up the valley toward a bend in the river. It looks like a half-hour walk, but it proves to be 10 miles away, maybe more. Puff, puff.

Without trees or anything of comprehensible scale between the land and the sky, it is hard to calibrate the vastness of this space. We never get that far. We tell ourselves, this is what it's like to be an ant. The contour intervals on our topographical maps are 200 feet, five times what they are for maps in the Lower 48. Which means that a 150-foot bluff doesn't even make the map. Why, here's one now. Puff, puff.

"Look at this!" Macgill drops to all fours. His nose points to ground as he walks with his fingertips and narrates a tour through the mosses, wildflowers, stunted willows, sedges, lichens and grasses that make up the tundra covering. This "forest" is only inches tall, some of the flowers as small as cut-rate engagement diamonds. Only inches beneath the surface is the perpetually frozen permafrost.

"If you were in the Cascades," Macgill says, "you'd have to be a tree climber to get this view. Here, we look down on the canopy." Belly botany, they call it. Before this trip is over, we will drop to the ground as often as Marine Corps recruits.

Arctic lesson: Carry a magnifying glass and the biggest binoculars you can afford.

A river's trace is the highway of the wild. We see many sheep skulls along the river banks and near the feeder streams that pour down distant slopes. But few ribs or femurs or vertebrae.

"The heads are round. Think about it," Macgill explains. "They're just the right shape to roll down here." Of course.

From the looks of things along the Hulahula, we have just missed rush hour. The paths of grizzly bears crisscross with those of the moose, caribou, wolf and fox. Or, who knows, maybe rush hour isn't over yet?

The question "How fresh are these tracks?" is no matter of tired dialogue from a TV Western here in grizzly bear country. Put your No. 10 1/2 rubber boot down in the soil alongside a grizzly print, stick your finger in the oversized hole left in the mud by a grizzly claw and the question becomes personal.

On the subject of grizzly bears, Macgill has not hidden his humility or his concern. At a pre-trip dinner in Fairbanks, he announced: "No jokes about bears. Bad karma." He says he has gotten steadily "more conservative," carnivore-wise, over the years. An ugly yellow rubber bag will ride on his raft and rests in our camp kitchen. The bag holds a 12-gauge.

Day three and the weather turns, turns glorious, and the receding Hulahula returns our missing magnum of champagne, half-buried in the sand. With Macgill rowing one raft and the rest of us paddling the other, we launch with enthusiasm.

For the first few days on the river, we will float north down the valley, then thread through lumpy foothills to the coastal plain. Unlike most white-water rivers in the Lower 48, the Hulahula does not drop from pool to pool. It is a steady, swift downhill gradient that in many places braids out into confusing webs of channels through the wide glacial bed.

"Which one is he taking? . . . . Slow down . . . . Paddle hard on the right. Hard!" It is not restful, our float. Picking the wrong channel can mean dragging a heavily loaded raft over a quarter-mile of gravel bars. Worse, we could be late for lunch.

On day four, we float for hours toward foothills, into the widening valley and through a canyon that no one else will ever see--a narrow, collapsing corridor of ice. The walls are 15 feet high, crystalline blue and white, each layer telling the story of the past winter storms. Eerie thunder rolls up and down the river as we paddle between the frozen cliffs. Chunks of ice are calving around us. The explosions come without any warning. Booomm! Fifty yards behind our raft an entire wall of ice crumbles into the channel, churning up a Malibu-sized wave, and we find ourselves floating in the company of icebergs.

I sneak a look at my watch. 10 o'clock. Hmmm. I wonder randomly, a.m. or p.m? Only in the very early morning, about 4 a.m., does the angle of light change, as the sun dips lower in the north, splashing us in long, yellow rays and lengthening our shadows. I wear a sleep mask in my tent at night.

On day five, a grizzly bear grazes nonchalantly and roots for ground squirrels on a far hillside. Closer, just 100 yards from us, a red fox emerges from a den to exercise two yapping, demanding, hungry pups. The fox looks our way but pays us no mind.

We haul out binoculars and watch. The bear climbs higher on the hillside. The fox stashes her pups underground in the den and circles our camp. She heads up a ravine into an area heavily pitted with ground squirrel holes. At least we assume it is a she and that she is going hunting. We hold our breath, awaiting the life-and-death drama. She finds a thick willow bush, crawls in and nods off to sleep.

"I think she's just trying to get away from those damn pups and get some rest," says Macgill.

Chris emerges from his tent, scratching, and carefully eyes the distant grizzly. "I told my accountant that I had to come on this trip. I needed to know which is a greater fear: making ends meet in business or seeing a grizzly bear."

Meanwhile, half a dozen caribou lope along the hillside between us and the bear. They take long-legged Groucho Marx strides on feet as big as frying pans. Soon these few will merge with dozens more and then hundreds and thousands and tens of thousands. Like us, they are following the river valley north to the coastal plain.

A short walk above our camp we find a tundra shelf and on it the hollow bones of small birds and the king-sized remains of caribou. Smaller skeletons are mortared in wolf scat, the larger ones gnawed clean. We see no wolves. But no doubt they see us.

Later, with my fly rod and a No.14 yellow humpy fly, I try a side creek and land an 11-inch grayling. Its sail-like dorsal fin, spotted in extravagant pink and blue, gleams in the sunlight. I carefully return the fish to the water.

BATTLES LIKE THE ONE over the future of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge boil down to value and values. No one doubts that there is some oil on the coastal plain, but how much, how recoverable is it and is there enough to make drilling worthwhile? Nearly everyone agrees that oil development here will disrupt the flora and fauna. But, again, to what degree, and are the risks serious enough to outlaw all drilling forever?

The forces for development ask us to trust our eyes and look at Prudhoe Bay, to the west. In about 20 years of oil extraction there, the caribou have not been run off or decimated, there have been no catastrophic spills or pipeline disasters, and Prudhoe oil has meant strategic and economic benefits for the United States.

The preservationists push a longer view: Imagine, they say, telling the Sioux: Don't worry; these little railroad crossings on the plains will not wipe out the prairie or dislocate your bison.

With the election of President Clinton, preservationists have gained a solid edge in the tug-of-war over the Arctic refuge. His campaign platform contained only one major site-specific promise to resist development: the 1002 refuge study area. And so far, he hasn't wavered.

But no one expects the advocates of oil development to give up. As their hopes for drilling approval fail to materialize, they simply retrench, not retreat. And this retrenchment has profoundly affected recent debate about the refuge.

It used to be that America's energy independence was the issue oil companies and their backers emphasized. Let us drill, or risk another energy crisis. Let us drill, or America becomes dangerously dependent on foreign oil sources. Let us drill, or risk more Persian Gulf wars.

This campaign reached a climax in the fall of 1991. President Bush, himself an oilman, pushed for congressional drilling authorization. The Senate refused, and the industry's urgency seemed to wane. After all, the world was awash in oil. Prices were stable. And the New World Order meant exciting opportunities for oil explorers in many other areas of the world. Suddenly, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and other far-off places were the buzz of the petroleum clubs. Leaders in these countries wanted development.

But as the oil companies fell back, the state of Alaska stepped forward. Oil pays 85% of Alaska's bills. There is no state income tax; in fact, for years, Alaskans have been getting oil-revenue pay-backs. In 1991, these taxes-in-reverse provided every Alaska man, woman and child with a $931 check and $3,000 more for those over 65. But in the same year, Prudhoe Bay oil production peaked and began its inevitable decline. Alaska was worried: Would big oil pull out, taking the gravy train with it?

So the state has become the new crusader for drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In newspaper ads around the nation, Alaska promises the rest of the nation that it will share in the wealth--in the form of jobs--if citizens will help turn the tide in Congress for oil development. Among the ads is one depicting a veteran of the Gulf War: "He put his life on the line. Today he's in the unemployment line. ANWR could mean 735,000 American jobs."

And to heck with the energy-independence argument. Alaska Gov. Walter J. Hickel recently called on the federal government to lift the export ban that applies to Alaska oil and allow it to be sold in the higher-priced Asian markets.

This year, the argument over drilling in the Arctic refuge is again before Congress. Unless President Clinton finds reason to push for wilderness protection, however, both warring sides seem willing to bide their time. Oil interests are confident that America will sooner or later face another energy crisis, toppling the walls of resistance around the refuge. Environmentalists, too, believe that time is on their side, figuring that America must someday wean itself of dependency on ever-more-scarce oil.

IT'S DAY SIX ON THE river, and Allen Smith is sitting on a bucket drinking top-of-the-world coffee, getting more emphatic by the moment.

"Why should the American people give up their heritage and birthright here to sustain this system of greed in Alaska?" Allen hotly demands. "And this 735,000 job figure is ridiculous." His eyes blaze. As a man who makes his living in the environmental movement in Alaska, he engages in this debate every day. So what if it's possible to drill and avoid a major spill? So what if we can "manage" the consequences on caribou. For Allen and others in our group, one thing matters even more: We cannot both build an oil operation in the refuge and leave it wild.

"Some of us believe that this place sets the standard by which all wilderness should be judged," Allen says. "And the threat to the refuge is the willingness of politicians to trade away these wild, natural values for some short-term gain. I hope I never see it happen, but I know I will spend the rest of my adult life fighting it."

I have to make it an argument: "The oil companies only want to drill across a fraction of the refuge's 19 million acres."

Macgill joins the fray. "Yeah," he snarls in disgust. "Suppose you had cancer in only 1% of your body--your bloodstream."

A little later, Macgill trades eloquence for anger. "Maybe," he says, "it's just comforting, or maybe it's extremely important, to people who live in a totally unnatural world to know there is a place like this where things work the way they have always worked. This is a very honest place. The tundra is as honest as can be."

And so these discussions usually go. They begin politically or intellectually but end down in the gut. You gaze around for 360 degrees and you see no sign of civilization, and that either means just about everything or it doesn't.

We fold camp and resume the river. Spring has progressed; everything is green. We traverse a day's worth of Class III rapids--difficult in that a mistake will plunge you into fast-moving water dangerously near the temperature of ice. Supposedly, the Hulahula got its name from Hawaiians pressed into Arctic whaling by the British before the turn of the century. Hula, of course, means dance. Dancing waters? Or, maybe it was a misspelling of hulihuli (many turns)? In either case, the Hawaiians would have been correct.

From this downriver perspective, the mountains behind us can be seen whole. In my notebook, I try to describe them: Streaks of wild lime and ocher rise up from the riverbed. Water-cut gullies of sharp, fresh scree climb higher, leaving smears of green against sandstone rust and shale gray. And higher still, spiny ridges top white snowfields and faint blue glaciers and point toward the black bottoms of 40,000-foot cumulonimbus thunderheads. Whew! Good thing I have only a small notebook.

Caribou now number in the hundreds on nearby hills. This is the Porcupine Herd, in recent years 180,000 strong. Their antlers, still developing, are covered with velvet and pulsing with blood. Macgill thrusts his arms over his head as if he had antlers, swinging them up and down as a grazing bull would. A cow and a yearling calf are lured to within 30 yards before they spook and trot off across the lumpy, spongy tundra.

DAY EIGHT. "WHAT'S that?" DeeDee VanVliet has finished her breakfast and is glassing the snowfield and tundra hillocks behind the camp with her eight-power binoculars.

We look, too.

"Right over there. A porcupine? A grizzly?"

Yes, a grizzly.

Damn! On the exotic scent of bacon and eggs, a barren-ground grizzly bears down. It is about half a mile away, moving steadily. There is no mistaking its course. It is the seventh bear we have seen, the first we will encounter.

Macgill, bare-chested and in shorts, and with an eagle feather tied in his sunglass strap, steps forward, a cooking pot in each hand. Clang, clang, bang, clatter. The bear hesitates, then advances again. It's maybe 400 yards away.

Clang, clang. Range, 300 yards.

Among brown bears, Arctic grizzlies are bantamweights; a big one goes to maybe 400 pounds. This one is smaller. By contrast, the brown bears of the coast, their diet richer and more abundant, grow to 1,200 pounds. These facts don't console us. On comes the bear.

Clang, clang, clang! The creature stops and squints toward the infernal racket. For a second or two, it hesitates. A bristly face, with bristly Mr. Potato Head ears, bobs side to side.

We stand our ground. It's the bear's choice now. We have, as Macgill might say, the proper attitude--gulp! The animal turns, bounds up the snowfield, gives us a look and disappears. It had been 200 yards away. At full steam, it could have reached us in nine seconds. As it was, it sped the bacon fat along in our arteries.

DeeDee is the most reliably cheerful of anyone on the trip. At this moment, however, her smile is frozen on her face and her eyes are as big as the incoming lens of her binoculars. You can see 150 grizzly bears in the wild and your heart still shifts into overdrive at the 151st. Like nothing else, these mighty, shaggy predators strop an edge on Arctic travel.

"Beautiful," DeeDee says. We share our gees and wows, pack up and hit the river.

So far, we have been traveling within the officially designated "wilderness" of the refuge. But sometime today we will cross into the 1002 study area, the battleground.

Today, we also see the unpleasant signs that other humans have been this way. A plywood cabin comes up on the right bank. It is surrounded by oil drums, leg traps for bears, traction belts from snow machines, spent rifle cartridges, rusty cans and freight boxes. This is an Inupiat Eskimo hunting cabin, empty now in the summer off-season. The Inupiats have two "inholdings," traditional hunting sites, inside refuge boundaries along the banks of the Hulahula River. Both, we discover, are indistinguishable from garbage dumps and likely to stay that way; nothing decomposes in what is virtually a year-round deep freeze.

"I can understand how difficult it is for a traditional society to grasp our notions of trash," says Macgill, staring down at the rusting teeth of a bear trap. "But if the land is so important to these people, how come they throw dirty Pampers all over it?"

Inupiat leaders, whose village of Kaktovik is due north of us on a coastal island that borders the refuge, support oil development here. The Inupiats have embraced the white cash economy in a big way, and drilling could mean more jobs and more money. Ordinary villagers at Kaktovik are said to be deeply divided about opening the refuge to drilling, although Eskimo culture rules out public dissent.

Some environmentalists believe that the Eskimo leaders want to flaunt their disregard for outside society's concept of wilderness. So they build a 1 1/2-story hunting shack when something less obtrusive would suffice, and they spread their garbage over hundreds of acres as if to declare this a wasteland. The message to us is unintended but clear: If just a few natives can throw this long, trashy shadow across the refuge, imagine what a billion-barrel oil operation could do.

Deeper into the coastal plain and the Arctic landscape gets flatter and flatter. Behind us the highest peaks of the Brooks Range arc 300 miles, east-to-west, horizon-to-horizon. Ahead, the only thing between us and forever is the curve of the earth and the silhouettes of massed caribou in the distance.

We see calves by the score now, rambunctious little butterscotch youngsters. But nature is harsh on them. Later, close to our camp, we watch as several hundred of the herd cross a river. Al Seib, cameras dangling, gets closest to the action. While we watch, one calf refuses to enter the current.

The mother cow swims back, but the calf refuses to budge. The mother abandons it, starts to rejoin the departing herd, then turns back again--torn by the ancient pull of migration and her maternal instinct. The gangly newborn will be some other animal's dinner if it cannot be coaxed into the rushing water. Increasing hysteria can be read in the movements of the cow. The herd moves away, the calf balks--back and forth the mother races, her eyes like saucers.

Al, a newsman who has witnessed all kind of carnage, becomes himself a picture of anguish. Should he wade out and rescue the calf? Can he stand still and let it perish?

Macgill arrives. "This is the way it is, the way it's supposed to be," he counsels quietly. Al retreats and, for some time, withdraws into himself.

EVEN IF ENVIRONMENTALISTS coax Congress into declaring the 1002 area sacrosanct wilderness, the Arctic refuge still faces a long-term challenge. Our journey is the forerunner of it: the footfall of tourism, the growing intrusion of people.

Under terms of the law authorizing oil production in Prudhoe Bay, a single gravel road was cut through the Brooks Range from Fairbanks, winding just to the west of the refuge. It was to be used only for servicing the pipeline and hauling supplies; thus its name, the Haul Road. But over the years, tour buses have taken their place on the road. Now the state government is debating a bill that would seek to open the road to tourists in their own vehicles. With such traffic are sure to come first-aid stations, highway troopers, gasoline stations, restaurants, launderettes, caribou "flightseeing" entrepreneurs and Far North fast-food franchises.

Some native leaders are fighting the state legislation, along with the likes of Allen Smith, and a court challenge is possible. Meanwhile, state planners in Juneau have sketched out a vast network of other roads for the region.

"This place is under attack from many fronts," says Allen with a sigh.

OUR DREAMY ESCAPE FROM time and civilization concludes exactly as it began: with the distant buzz of a bush plane. It is our 10th day in the refuge. We had set up camp the night before at a river bend that we thought was the prearranged pickup site. To me it was indistinguishable from hundreds of other bends in the river. But Macgill hiked off and, sure enough, sighted a tiny orange flag, which suggested a marker. And Chris indulged his wild abandon by running across the tundra in the nude, howling at the sun.

Through the morning fog we hear the sound of an engine, and we scramble to pack and load. In minutes, the plane is down and the first two of our group climb in and go bouncing across the tundra, to be shuttled west to the Prudhoe Bay airfield at Deadhorse. The ferrying continues until we're all out.

At Deadhorse, we board a commercial flight to Fairbanks. Most of the passengers are retirement-age tourists wearing clean clothes. Unlike us, they do not stink. They express not a whit of interest in us and never hear our tales of massing caribou, of ice canyons and free-ranging bears or of how we watched, our hearts aching, as Al's calf struggled on the bank of the Hulahula.

In turn, we ask them nothing about their tour of the oil fields or about the buttons they were given and now wear nonchalantly: "Open ANWR." We wonder if they share the view of the area that has been expressed by Harold Heinze, a former president of Arco Alaska who's now the governor's resource-development adviser. "A flat, crummy place," he once called it.

In fact, the tourists and the Hulahula six don't even say hello. We simply fly together out of the Arctic, each with our own stories to tell.

Later, Chris will phone me from Baltimore. "People ask me if I want to live in Alaska now," he tells me and sighs. "I say no, but I want to go there when I die."

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